In early December, while the Eagles were encamped for a week in Southern California, defensive lineman Chris Long described what he felt to be Doug Pederson’s best attribute as a head coach.
“Very even-keeled,” Long said then. “He doesn’t panic. He keeps things very short-term, as far as we need to handle X, Y and Z, and don’t worry about anything else. I think that’s a really good approach to take. His mood kind of permeates through the team; let’s just go handle our business, and whatever happened last week, good or bad, doesn’t matter.”
Back then, the team’s biggest bump in the road was overcoming a tough loss on the road in Seattle. At the end of that week, of course, everything changed. The same day the Eagles locked up the NFC East with their 11th win of the season against the Rams, they lost their starting quarterback for the season—the biggest reason for the team’s success this season. Carson Wentz’s torn ACL explains the oddity of the No. 1-seeded Eagles being home underdogs for this week’s divisional-round game against Atlanta, the first time that’s happened to a top seed since the 1970 merger. But that attribute in Pederson that Long mentioned then—even-keeledness, not panicking—will be more important this week than ever.
Saturday’s game will be Pederson’s biggest test as a head coach. For the first 30 games of his tenure as the Eagles head coach, his quarterback was Wentz, the kind of player who has already demonstrated the ability to make plays when it looks like none are to be made and mask any ills around him. Now, Pederson has to try to win a playoff game with Nick Foles, after the offense sputtered the final weeks of the season without Wentz.
Pederson’s hire two years ago was met with probably the least fanfare of any of the seven NFL head coaches hired that winter. Just seven years earlier he’d been a quality control coach and his only head coaching experience was at the high school level; he was probably best-known for the quarterbacks he spent time backing up as a player, Brett Favre and Dan Marino. Pederson came in with a plan that drew heavily from his former boss and the Eagles’ former boss, Andy Reid, and many in the city of Philadelphia considered him simply to be “Andy Reid Lite.”
But of the seven coaches hired in early 2016, two have already been fired—Ben McAdoo with the Giants and Chip Kelly with the 49ers—and it’s Pederson who has the best win-loss record of the other five. Pederson deserves credit for the development of Wentz, who ascended in year two from the starter of a 7–9 team to a leading NFL MVP candidate before his injury, and for designing an offense that smartly melds college and pro concepts. But perhaps we’ll learn more about who he is as a head coach this week than in any other, even if the challenge of winning a playoff game against Matt Ryan with your backup quarterback is a slanted one.
Can they devise a game plan to win with Foles? Can they avoid the pitfalls of the first-round bye? How will he engender a performance from his team more inspiring than the ones we saw on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve? Pederson will likely approach the divisional round like he has every other game as a head coach: By laying out goals for this week, nothing more and nothing less.
“He’s always direct,” said receiver Torrey Smith. “It doesn’t have to be the most complicated message in the world, just, we have to do this in order to win.”
This week, that figures to be a game plan heavy on the ground game, like the Eagles used in Dallas in Week 11. Wentz had an unusually shaky first half that night, but the Eagles ended up running the ball more times than they passed it to win the game. But just as important is building Foles’s confidence entering this game, something Pederson didn’t quite do publicly entering the bye week, when he stumbled at a press conference when asked if he’d consider going to third-string QB Nate Sudfeld if Foles were to continue struggling? “It's hard to be in desperation mode,” Pederson answered, “but if you are in that mode, who knows?”
Pederson does not always pick the right words in these situations, and he is not one of the coaches around the league that has been made to be a face of the organization, with his fingerprints clearly on every decision. What he was most lauded for when he was hired was the staff he put together, including defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and two other former quarterbacks, OC Frank Reich and QBs coach John DeFilippo, to work with him on developing Wentz. Nor did he come in with, say, his own distinctive style. “It’s all new; he’s still learning,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins.
But Pederson has navigated challenges well to this point, starting with last season, when he started a rookie quarterback who had been promoted from third-stringer just eight days before the season opener. He’s built a cohesive locker room and given veteran players the space to lead. Earlier in the year, he asked Jenkins, Smith and Long to stand in front of the team to explain the reasons behind the national anthem demonstrations, the work they were doing in the community and how other players could get involved if they were interested. Last week, the players wanted to have a padded practice during the bye, to reclaim some of the intensity that had been lost in the final games of the regular season, and he listened.
The city of Philadelphia has been waiting nervously to see how Pederson’s Eagles show up on Saturday. In some cases, “don’t panic” is a throwaway line—but this week, it is the most important thing.